By Al Qalam Reporter
The once flourishing South African Haj and Umrah travel industry is in limbo with specialist travel agencies taking a huge financial knock and uncertain about taking new bookings over the coronavirus lockdown in Saudi Arabia.
Ismail Olla, secretary general of the South African Muslim Travel Association (SAMTA) told Al-Qalam that the Ministry of Hajj and Umrah (MOH) are unable to state categorically when the temporary suspension would be lifted.
Asked how its members were keeping their heads above water amidst the crisis, Olla said: “Remember that we are in uncharted territory. The effect is on travel as a whole, with Emirates cancelling flights to Saudi, Turkey, Italy (except Rome), Iran and others to name a few. No doubt these are challenging times as we have overheads and running costs. All we are doing these days is processing refunds, just undoing what we have done. Our accounting and admin staff are the ones that are most busy. It is a trying time especially as Ramadaan Umrah and Hajj are on our doorstep.
“The MOH has advised us via SAHUC that all prep for Hajj 1441 needs to be placed on hold. They are not saying Hajj is cancelled, they are merely taking precautionary measures.
“We are doing what is in the best interest for the pilgrim as well as trying to ensure that offices remain operational. All we can do is place our Trust in Allah.
“It is uncertain as to how the impact of COVID-19 will play out. We are encouraging some staff to take their annual leave now as once the storm is over, we will need to have hands on deck. All projects are being reassessed”, he said.
On the question of umrah pilgrims whose trips were cancelled, “Refunds are in process” Olla said. Remember we pay the hoteliers in Saudi. They have cancelled our reservations without penalties and have stated that they will hold our funds in credit. So basically the funds are not going to be sent back to us very soon. This may be acceptable for those passengers who have advised us to hold their funds in credit.
“Those passengers who want refunds will need to wait a bit for us to process – we prefer to process land and flights together.
“Airlines have started the process of refunds. Saudia will be deducting a small fee of approximately R132.